“The Profile” by Willa Cather #WCSSP2023

This month’s story is “The Profile.” As mentioned in the reminder post, it caused a falling out between Cather and her friend Dorthy Canfield Fisher.

For those of you who haven’t read the story, it is about portrait painter Aaron Dunlap and his obsession with the scar on a young woman’s face. It reminded me of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Birthmark,” which is about a husband’s obsession with human perfection.

1-minute video on Cather, Canfield Fisher, and Evelyn Osborne

“The Profile” is framed by a three paragraph introduction about an old painter lecturing on the grotesque in art. His opinion is that any bodily “defect,” distortion, or difference is not proper. “The only effects of horror properly within the province of the artist are psychological.” The old artist is just getting started and will go on for some time. After he states that a wounded body is “beyond reparation,” Dunlap, who was attending the lecture, quietly leaves the room to everyone’s relief. (Point taken, Cather, they were feeling psychological horror.)

When Dunlap first meets Virginia, the young women with the facial scar, he is repelled by it. Virginia doesn’t seem to be aware of it. They fall in love and marry. Dunlap is hopeful that Virginia will confide in him about the scar. She does not and he considers it a lack of intimacy, that she is not sharing a deep part of herself with him. He wants just once to have the scar acknowledged by her. His obsession grows to the point that he goes on out of town sketching tours to release the tension.

Opening of “The Profile” in McClure’s Magazine, June 1907 (source)

Virginia is drawn to beauty. They have a daughter, Eleanor, who is sickly. Virginia does not care for her daughter and keeps her away from others, which disturbs Dunlap who loves the child more for her physical challenges.

A younger cousin, also named Eleanor, comes to live with Dunlap and Virginia for the winter. The two Eleanors hit it off. Then Dunlap does something stupid (or tender, depending on your reading).

Virginia tells Dunlap that Eleanor wants to cut short her stay. She asks her husband to adjust his attitude and this is apparently the last straw for him. Dunlap snaps and makes a cruel remark to Virginia about her scar. She is gone the next day, never to return.

The household knows that cousin Eleanor uses a small alcohol lamp. The day after Dunlap’s cruelty and Virginia’s departure, the small alcohol lamp explodes in Eleanor’s face. Her face is now scarred.

Was it an accident? Did Virginia tamper with the alcohol lamp? Or was it Dunlap? After Dunlap and Virginia divorce, he marries Eleanor.

And this is where the story takes a turn.

The story ends like it began, with a wider public lens:

Society, always prone to crude antithesis, knew of Dunlap only that he had painted many of the most beautiful women of his time, that he had been twice married, and that each of his wives had been disfigured by a scar.

At first I thought Virginia tampered with the lamp, but after thinking about the old artist’s lecture that, “The only effects of horror properly within the province of the artist are psychological,” I am leaning towards Dunlap being the perp.

What do you think? I’d love to hear your take on this story.

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